May 20, 2007

A Three Dog Life

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
Finished on 5/7/07
Rating: 4/5 (Very good)
Nonfiction Book Challenge #1

Publisher's Blurb:

When Abigail Thomas’s husband, Rich, was hit by a car, his brain shattered. Subject to rages, terrors, and hallucinations, he must live the rest of his life in an institution. He has no memory of what he did the hour, the day, the year before. This tragedy is the ground on which Abigail had to build a new life. How she built that life is a story of great courage and great change, of moving to a small country town, of a new family composed of three dogs, knitting, and friendship, of facing down guilt and discovering gratitude. It is also about her relationship with Rich, a man who lives in the eternal present, and the eerie poetry of his often uncanny perceptions. This wise, plainspoken, beautiful book enacts the truth Abigail discovered in the five years since the accident: You might not find meaning in disaster, but you might, with effort, make something useful of it.

An excerpt:

This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes. A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t. My children are close then one drifts away. I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again. The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent. He grounds me. Rich is where I shine. I can count on myself with him.

I live in a cozy house with pretty furniture. Time passes here. There is a fireplace and two acres and the dogs run around and dig big holes and I don’t care. I have a 27-inch TV and lots of movies. The telephone rings often. Rich is lodged in a single moment and it never tips into the next. Last week I lay on his bed in the nursing home and watched him. I was out of his field of vision and I think he forgot I was there. He stood still, then he picked up a newspaper from a neat pile of newspapers, held it a moment, and carefully put it back. His arms dropped to his sides. He looked as if he was waiting for the next thing but there is no next thing.

and another:

Writing is the way I ground myself, what keeps me sane. Writing is the way I try and make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens-even though I know that why is a distraction, and meaning you have to cobble together yourself. Sometimes just holding a pen in my hand and writing milk butter eggs sugar calms me. Truth is what I’m ultimately after, truth or clarity. I think that’s what we’re all after, truth, although I’d never have said such a thing when I was young. And I write non-fiction because you can’t get away with anything when it’s just you and the page. What would be the point? Who would you be kidding? Why bother writing at all? Once in a while you come too close to an uncomfortable truth, and your writing goes flat, and your instinct might be to change the subject. But this is the most interesting of moments. There is so much to be found out. You can either stare at the page and realize hot dog, this is a safe to be cracked, or you can crawl under the covers and take a nice nap.

I've always been fond of memoirs, but I've felt especially drawn to this area of nonfiction writing more during the past two years than ever before. As the author states, "Truth is what I'm ultimately after, truth or clarity." I previously read Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she shares the intimate details of the tragic loss of her husband. However, Abigail Thomas' stark honesty resonated much more strongly with me than Didion's, in spite of the fact that Rich Thomas' TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) didn't result in death. Thomas' writing reflects that of one coming to terms with a grief of sorts, yet unlike Didion's, her narrative is much more provacative and intensely emotional. Perhaps because she's living the life of a wife that isn't.

The book's epigraph explains the meaning behind the title:

Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a 'three dog night.' - Wikipedia

Some favorite passages:

I seem to be leaving in the road behind me all sorts of unnecessary baggage, stuff to heavy to carry. Old fears are evaporating, the claustrophobia that crippled me for years is gone, vanished. I used to climb the thirteen flights to our apartment because I was terrified of being alone in the elevator. What if it got stuck? What if I never got out? Then there I was one Sunday morning in the hospital, Rich on the eighth floor, the elevator empty. What had for years terrified me now seemed ridiculously easy. I haven't got the time for this, I thought, and got right in. When the doors closed I kept thinking, Go ahead! Try it! What more can you possibility do to me?

I know this is something my husband and I have both experienced since the death of our daughter. We've been through the absolute worst. All the minor worries of day-to-day living are pointless.


One day I look out the hospital window high above Central Park, and I feel as if there's a tightrope connecting Rich's hospital room to our apartment, and all I do is walk back and forth on it, the city far below. I can almost see it shivering like a high-tension wire above the trees. This is when I learn that I have to take care of myself, even if my leaving makes him angry, or worse, sad. I need to eat and sleep. I need to do something mindless, go to a movie, fritter away an afternoon. And I realize something even more startling: I can't make everything all right. It's his body that is hurt, not mine. I can't fix it, I can't make it never have happened.


Time has gotten skewed, as tangled as fish line, what means what amymore? How could it be two years since the accident? I calculate it in months, weeks, but the numbers don't feel real or important. One hundred and four weeks. Twenty-four months. Whole handfuls of time have slipped through my fingers. Seasons rush by before I have grasped "winter," "spring." Somehow I have gotten to be sixty, in no time Rich will be seventy. We would have had parties to mark the place, but the last birthday slid by unnoticed, the lat anniversary. Twenty-four months since the accident. If it were a child, it would be talking, walking, climbing into everything. "Time flaps on its mast," wrote Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway. For us time hangs off its mast. Sometimes I'm not even sure about the mast. Something stopped ticking April 24, 2000. Our years together ended, our future together changed. In one moment of startling clarity he told me, "My future has been dismantled."

I found myself nodding my head as I read the above passage. In many ways, it feels like we lost a huge chunk of time after Rachel's death. I've found myself in the middle of a conversation, talking about an event that took place three years ago, yet thinking it was only a couple of years past. It's as if we were living underwater, anethesitized from the real world, for almost an entire year. Time passed, but we stayed locked in our own world of grief. Of course, more time has since passed and we've returned to the real world, making plans for a new motorcycle, a kayak, road trips and living life to its fullest.

I first heard about A Three Dog Life from Nan over at Letters from a Hill Farm. Her lovely review piqued my interest and I immediately ordered a copy. Not only will I re-read this gem of a book, but I plan to buy copies of Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life and An Actual Life.


  1. Oh, Les. What a good review.

    Since my father's death, I have really hated how time goes on inexorably. If I could, I'd want to grab it by the shoulders and shake it and shout in its face: "HOW DARE YOU?"

  2. I'm so, so happy you liked the book, Les. I just loved it. It has stayed in my mind like no other.

  3. Wow, that sounds like a wonderful book. I'm actually reading The Year of Magical Thinking and at times I have to put it down because of the raw emotion, but I like the quotes from A Three Dog Life better, possibly because Joan Didion's life is so hard to grasp. It's so far removed from my own experience.

  4. This is a beautiful review, Les. I don't know how you had the courage to read it. I loved the quotes from the book, but also loved how you expressed your sorrow as living underwater. It's so descriptive and it reverberates with familiarity.

  5. This is a wonderful review!! I've never been a big non-fiction reader. In fact, the memoir is about the only non-fiction I've read. I'm actually reading one right now, and it's not too bad. I'll be posting a review soon! Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller.

  6. Bybee - Thank you kindly. And I'm sorry about your father. I believe Time is a cruel friend of Death's.

    Nan - Hey! A book we both loved! :) Thank you so very much for leading me to such a gem.

    Nancy - I read The Year of Magical Thinking hmmm... was it a year ago or two??? I know it was prior to my blog since I haven't posted a review for it (yet). I agree with you. I think Didion's writing/life is a bit unapproachable. I think you'd like A Three Dog Life. The author seemed like someone I'd like to know. I think she'd get along famously with you, me and Bellezza.

    Booklogged - Thank you for your kind words. I don't know if it was courageous to read the book or simply curiosity to see how someone else deals with tragedy. Please know that I've come up for air and am no longer dwelling underwater. Every now and then I'll get knocked back under, but I'm fighting hard to stay above water these days.

    Stephanie - I think the reason I love memoirs is that the good ones read like novels. You know, I tried to read Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, but couldn't get interested. Could've been a timing issue. I look forward to reading your review. I know others have loved the book...

  7. Anonymous1:03 AM

    It's really scary how life happens to you. Thank you for the review.

  8. What a great review and this looks like a book I will definitely like. I'm adding it to my Book Club list for the next time we choose.

  9. Anonymous4:07 PM

    I read this one last year and Didion's book this year. I found them very similar, but enlightening. I think you really have to be at a certain place in your life to appreciate these kind of books.

  10. Great review, Lesley! This sounds like a very worthwhile read. I will definitely be adding it to my wish list. Thank you.

  11. Sylvia - Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by.

    DebD - I think this would be a good bookclub selection. Lots to discuss. Thanks for stopping by.

    Kristy - I think you're right about being in a certain place in your life. This and Didion's both spoke to me in different ways.

    Literary Feline - It was most definitely a worthwhile read. I'm anxious to read more of her works. Hope you enjoy it.

  12. You chose excellent excerpts, Les. This book is really special - which sounds like a cliche, but it really IS special.

    Have you thought about writing a book about your life experiences? I do believe you have the skill and you certainly have the story.

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Mary. It is a special book! I had planned to read it a second time, but so far all my new books have been calling for my attention. Maybe someday...

      You know, you're the third person in recent days to have asked me if I've thought of writing a book about my experiences. I wrote my "letters" to Rachel (in the form of a blog back in 2005) as a way to work through my grief. It's been over seven years since we lost her and in all honesty, I don't think I can revisit that story with the depth and intimacy required for a memoir. But thank you for your encouragement and kind words. Maybe someday...


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